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  • Writer's pictureMarie Ohanesian Nardin

Sambuca di Sicilia: at the gates of paradise

Good morning. Summer is a day away!

And I recently received a small sample of hand painted tiles I ordered from Caltagirone in Sicily. I'm considering them for the entry staircase or other areas of our home in Sambuca di Sicilia. I'm excited to say that the restoration project is moving forward, and we will be taking a trip there soon to move it even further on.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a photo of the tiles below, which I am head-over-heels excited about, and a lovely article written by Susanna La Valle; shared with me by a Sambucesi friend and neighbor this morning. Both the article and the tiles hold the essence I feel when in Sicily and in the Quartiere Saraceno, the neighborhood where our home sits.

Leave me a comment with your thoughts on the tiles! And pay particular attention to the Di Giovanna winery mentioned in La Valle's article. This aspiring sommelier is especially fond of their Helios - DOC 100% Grillo, and hope to squeeze in a visit to their cantina during my next stay.

The translation is by me, and the original in Italian, along with lovely photos, can be found by clicking on "Balarm" below.

Buona lettura!

Published in Balarm

By Susanna La Valle 20 giugno 2023

Translation by Marie Ohanesian Nardin

author, and homeowner in the Quartiere Saraceno

“Saracen alleys, majolica stairs and playing cards: you are in the village "at the gates of Paradise" Among decorated walls, cobbled streets with painted doors and (decorative) large snails. This time, we’re taking you to what was once the fortress of the Emir Al Zabut”

It's a new day in Sambuca, once again here at the "village of villages of 2016". I go up the causeway again in direction of the Matrix. I pass an arch and enter a series of alleys, with names in Italian and Arabic, I am in the Saraceno district.

I left the baroque churches, the sandstone buildings and I find myself in courtyards and alleys, from a door decorated with a playing card: a King of hearts with the inscription lu Re d’Aremi ogni capricciu po' soddisfari…the King of Aremi every whim a little satisfied, a couple comes out, their accent Nordic, and he shows me the way to reach the Belvedere.

Intrigued, I notice the writings and names placed on the houses, many of them are foreigners.

Following the indications passed the Casa del limone, the Case ai Sette Vicoli, and a two-story house with an entirely majolica staircase where each step is different from the other, I pass decorated walls, through cobbled stone streets with more painted doors, more large snails, up to a small square where two angels are kissing on the wall.

I am in a state of relaxation, without any hurry I let myself be carried up to the Belvedere. I am in what was once the fortress of the Emir Al Zabut, where the Cathedral is now located: the Matrix.

I have a new guide, Salvatore, whom I meet inside the church. He watches me wander around a little confused, but then with courtesy and kindness he invites me to sit down, and in the mystical darkness he tells me about the Church.

The story starts from the Baldi Centellis Marchesi di Sambuca family. The sisters Giulia and Maria financed the construction of the church built on top of a previous one from the 1400s, using the base of the ancient castle.

Salvatore says that an underground walkway starts from the fortress and leads directly to the Saraceno district under the "Via del Fantasma", where it is said there are strange presences. This route allowed the Emir to quickly reach the Arab quarter.

The Matrix is ​​divided into three naves, the bell tower is extraordinary, probably the ancient Saracen tower, with polychrome ceramics and a spire resting on acanthus leaves.

The Church was damaged by the Belice earthquake in 1968 and returned to worship after more than fifty years, even though its restoration has not yet been completed. I talk to Salvatore about the Arab domination that lasted 400 years, about the beauty of the Belvedere, where the view extends over the Sicani Mountains to Caltabellotta and Giuliana. I have a question, why snails?

He replies, «here we go slow without haste, taking time is never wasted time. Then, in Sambuca snails are a delicious dish». For many the Sambucesi are called the babbaluciari.

I ask about the prominent Navarra family and the cultural ferment experienced in the 19th century, with Emanuele Navarro della Miraglia, a great friend of Dumas and a verismo author, «there were indeed great intellectuals here», and he shows me where to find the house.

The conversation then inevitably comes to the houses sold for 1 euro: «There were 15 houses in all, but this became an important promotional launch, in Sambuca there are now many Americans, Jordanians, Arabs and even Indians».

Before leaving, he gave me another piece of advice: «Don't overlook another excellence: wine. Sambuca is in the golden triangle of Sicilian viticulture, here the wine has unique aromas».

I follow the invitation and contact a producer, Gunther di Giovanna of the homonymous cellar. Its wines tell of a production born in the wake of a family tradition linked to the cultivation of grapes since 1860.

In the beginning, the grapes were given to the "Sette Soli" winery in Menfi and then from 2003/04 they began their production, from autochthonous wines such as Catarratto, and international wines such as Chardonnay. The whole family is involved in the company, even the parents born in 1936 and 1940 who continue to work: «their advice always heralds good things».

I ask about the name Gunther, he replies that his mother is German, his is an international family, his wife is from Philadelphia, with great experience in the wine sector having worked for a large importer.

This cosmopolitan characteristic has determined the decision to expand to the foreign market, their approximately 250,000 bottles reach numerous international markets.

The Di Giovanna vineyards extend between two territories: Sambuca and Contessa Entellina, a small distance but one which gives the wines profound differences.

«In Sambuca with the presence of the mountains, calcareous soils and organic substances from the woods, the wine is different from the calcareous and tuffaceous soils of Contessa, after all the wine is a Liquid Postcard, it describes a territory more than any other product».

I ask what Sicilian wines lack to become leaders abroad, he replies: «Unified promotion and marketing strategies, such as the large companies of Etna have put into practice. The ability to represent the island through 5,6 zones is lacking».

This producer in love with his land, with a degree in Industrial Relations, quotes Machiavelli: «We are responsible for 50% of our destiny, the other is chance», adding the words of Professor Mannino - his teacher at the Liceo Classico di Sciacca - «if you have good cards, sit at the table where the game is strong, because you have a good chance, if your cards are scarce, find a different table, you will lose at most a caramel».

At this point I ask what his cards are: «I'm German, a Norman, but I'm also Sicilian, I have special cards».

"The Normans - he adds - were unable to resist the charm of the island, here they were not dominators, but donors".

I say goodbye to Di Giovanna and leave Sambuca thinking back to the words of a poet from Sambuca: «…it is located at the gates of Paradise, framed by a bright sky that rejoices the heart and soul as well, radiating bundles of serenity».

The journey continues.

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